Vagrant Story is a story told on its own terms from that obsessively detailed cover artwork down. A cropped version of character designer Akihiko Yoshida’s image graced every territory’s release instead of a safer, shelf-friendlier, but ill-fitting render – on that note, the opening FMV feels like both a weary concession by the designers and a beautiful, vacuous shrug of the shoulders from the Final Fantasy VIII cinematic team, asked to sell a dungeon-crawl-as-Shakespearean-tragedy in 20 seconds or less.
Flashy, jump-cut and typically Square, it sits uncomfortably in a title that’s atypical in almost every way. So atypical that even the cover’s moody watercolours are misleading: hero Ashley Riot and companion Callo Merlose are barely united for longer than the in-game introduction sequences. (That’s sequences – one to follow a press of the Start button, the other two to play out if you don’t press it, as it would be too straightforward to thread the political and personal cat’s cradle of the plotline from just one viewpoint.) If it hints at sexual tension, the closest any character gets to true intimacy is in the game’s final chapter of deaths and farewells – in Ashley’s case, comforting the ravaged body of the man he has spent the game pursuing, scarecrow-blonde fugitive Sydney Losstarot, after his immortality has been bloodily stripped from his back.
Strange romances and shifting allegiances are common enough in RPG plotlines, as are heroes forced to confront their traumatic pasts, but Vagrant Story’s characters are written and drawn with a confidence that moves them beyond pantomime into arrestingly staged theatre. It’s a more sober production than those resulting from Kojima’s adoration of cinema, yet not po-faced enough to resist naming its lead antagonist Romeo Guildenstern and a triple-crossing conspirator Rosencrantz.
Where the environments embrace period detail, Yoshida’s character and costume design subvert it for medieval chic and brazenly bare flesh – infamously so in the case of Ashley’s practically buttock-baring slit trousers, or how little of Sydney’s frame is left to the imagination. Vagrant Story’s leads brought catwalk sex appeal to a genre too eager to settle for stereotype and functionality: sporting armour as fashion statements, unrepentant anachronisms like razorblade-fingered gauntlets, golden lip rings or stocking-and-suspender greaves and, most impressively, managing to retain much of their haughty allure even when transferred to the PlayStation’s shivering polygons.
The character models are the pinnacle of the last days of PS1, but it’s the stage direction that flatters their imperfections and makes even the most slow-burning of scenes electric. Never settling for talking heads, both camera and actors are constantly restless, the former finding new angles with seductively gentle pans or violent lurches as the action demands; the latter swaggering, preening, circling each other’s personal spaces with the wary contemplation of predatory animals. What’s still impressive is the sense that they have chemistry, portraying wordless communication and overwrought monologue alike with poise and performance, not the awkward shuffling on the spot and rigid, semaphore emoting of so many in-game productions. And they’re framed superbly by their environments, perhaps Vagrant Story’s crowning reversal of expectations – the game opens with ominous storms and witching-hour shadow, then progressively lightens as the principal players are drawn to a whispered name, both promise and threat: Lea Monde, city of shade, lost to ruin and Darkness.
And yet Lea Monde is painted not in barren gloom, but with overgrown avenues heartbroken and haunted under a languid summer afternoon. The musical score cuts out to a chorus of birdsong, keening wind, rushing water: you can stand on the Rue Vermillion or look across the waterways of the Tircolas Flow and find the same aloof, melancholy beauty as Silent Hill’s streets in that long-held breath before things go wrong, before you realise things went wrong a long time ago and it will never be free of that moment. Out of scene, soldiers struggle to hold back the city’s hungry ghosts and fear the onset of night when they will stalk the streets, but that night never comes during play – only a brilliant, searing sunset to frame the ascent of the great cathedral on Lea Monde’s last day.
Despite the fearsome solidity of Vagrant Story’s atmosphere, it never shies away from admitting it’s a videogame. It sports enough screen furniture to comfortably entertain friends, with a UI overlay as contrastingly modern as its surroundings are historical – the wireframe globe that blooms to indicate the range of an attack as fondly remembered by players as any cinematic sequence. While the script finds characters justifying the existence of moving platforms and walking dead, the block puzzle sections and their optional ‘Evolve Or Die!’ timed completion challenges (not to be taken literally, as failure only earns a disdainful rank on the evolutionary scale) go cheerfully, thankfully, unexplained. Defeat a boss and a congratulatory screen tallies your increasingly pinball machine-like score, and awards a chance to slightly upgrade Ashley’s statistics by stopping a roulette wheel – with attendant drum roll – of upgrades. Most markedly, combat itself, though moving in stop-and-think-motion compared to many action-RPGs before and since, hinges on measured button combos and heartbeat-accurate timing, owing as much to rhythm-action as tactical strategy.
That’s not to downplay how seriously the game takes its combat system, though, invariably the aspect that accounts for the chasmic differences of opinion over the title. When its stage dressings are first pulled aside to hint at the depths of mechanic beneath – usually at a boss encounter where the player discovers their chosen weapon fails to even register a chink in their foe’s armour – many considered it a betrayal, that they had been lured unwittingly into the ghetto of hardcore statistics-matching by the spectacular production design. And to some degree, they had been: the game was developed as a concept album for Yasumi Matsuno’s Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle team, a jam session of unbridled strategy and extravagant aesthetic designed to be all things to some gamers. If navigating the equipment trees was as straightforward as navigating the gameworld, if the hard numbers could have been injected with the playful mechanics present elsewhere, if the battle system wasn’t so indifferent to a first-time player’s struggles, Vagrant Story might have made more friends – but it’s a self-sacrifice Matsuno seemed not so much resigned to as expectant of.
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